2013: Nancy Mitford and Wigs on the Green


"No, I'm sorry," said Noel Foster, "Not sufficiently attractive."

Wigs on the Green, Nancy Mitford 

       Before we can talk about Wigs on the Green, we need to talk about Nancy Mitford, and the Mitford girls generally (I've discussed this before on the blog, after having read a collection of their letters to each other).  If you don't know about the Mitford girls, you are in for such a treat, because they are absolutely fascinating.  Five upper class sisters growing up in England in the interwar years, they turned out one writer (Nancy), one Communist (Jessica/Decca - who actually also went on to be a famous writer too, writing Hons and Rebels about her childhood, and more serious works such as The American Way of Death), one quiet one (Pam), a Duchess (Debo) and, oh, two Nazis (Unity and Diana).  And we're talking, wife of the British Union of Facists (Diana), and personal friends with Hitler (Unity) type Nazi's.  Unity tried to committ suicide when England declared war on Germany - she failed, but suffered brain damage, and lived out the rest of her brief life in agony.  It's just an interesting story - I recommend Mary Lovell's biography, The Sisters, as well as Hons and Rebels, and of course Nancy's novels, if you want to get a sense of these women and how they turned out the way they did.

      Now, if you haven't read anything Nancy wrote, you need to put down this computer or iphone and immediately get your hands on her masterpieces - Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love.  They are usually sold in one volume, so you can get them easy.  They are DIVINE.  Loosely based on her own childhood, its the story of young girls growing up and trying to find love, and are so funny and witty and sharp and if you like Waugh, or Stella Gibbons, or good books period, you will love them.  I recently re-read both, and was just delighted all over again.  My one chagrin is that the BBC made an adaptation of both books a few years ago (starring Rosamunde Pike as Fanny, our narrator) and it is impossible to get them on DVD. I'd love to watch them again.  

To encourage you to stop reading this and start reading Love in a Cold Climate, I provide the following link:

Ok, this brings us to Wigs on the Green.  Nancy wrote the book in the interwar years, and it pokes (very, very, very) gentle fun at British facists - i.e. the cause that was so sacred to her sister's hearts.  Because of all that later transpired - the war, Unity's sucide attempt, the fact that Diana and her husband spent part of the war in prison because of their former ties to German facists, Nancy would not allow the book to be reprinted in her lifetime.  So most people haven't read it lately.  The book is interesting as an artifact, for sure - it was written at a time when people didn't know quite where facisim was going (which is to say, I don't think its fair to critcize her for not coming down harder on them in light of what we now know about the Nazis).  But her teasing of the facists is very very gentle - one could even read the book and think Nancy supported them, which isn't fair - certainly during the war she was on the side of right, and even wrote a secret letter to the authorities telling them not to release her sister from prison, as she and her husband were too dangerous to be let loose.  But if you compare this to P.D. Wodehouse's The Code of the Woosters, where he just destroys the British fascists as ridiculous fools, it's clear that Mitford is giving them a pass.  Anyway, as someone who is interested in the Mitfords and their political issues, the book is worth reading.  

But is it worth reading as a stand alone piece? It's no Love in a Cold Climate, that's for sure.  The characters are pretty slight, and the political stuff sort of swamps the fun romantic entanglement stuff.  It reminds me of Waugh, a bit, but it's not quite sharp enough to be satire of bright young things.  So, where I'm left is, if you've read Love in a Cold Climate and you loved it, AND you are interested in the sisters too, then, yes, read it.  But if you haven't, you'd be much much better off reading Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, because they are delights, and this is both minor, and politically iffy to boot.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017